Cut Once, Measure Twice

Bobby Johnson

The key to innovation is measurement.

But wait, isn't innovation really about drinking a lot of Red Bull and scribbling on whiteboards? Isn't innovation flashy and fast-paced and cool, while measurement is careful and boring?

Despite what you see in the movies, innovation rarely happens with a single lightning bolt of an idea from the heavens. It happens when you iterate continuously — by testing, measuring, and refining lots of small ideas over time.

Tweet: #Innovation happens only when you iterate continuously

To be successful at iteration you need a sandbox where you can try out new ideas easily, at a low cost of failure. And to get the most value out of an experiment, your sandbox must also be measurable. The point of running experiments is to learn things, so the better you can measure your results, the faster you learn.

A lot of discussions (and inspirational quotes) on iteration simplify experiments to either “failing" or “succeeding.” But the real world isn’t that binary. A well-measured experiment can help you understand complexity beyond just a go/no-go decision.

For example, imagine I have a new mobile app and I want to increase the number of users that use it everyday. I can run an experiment by rearranging the controls and flows and measuring how it affects the usage. This an awesome first step, and I will almost certainly increase the usage of my app through iteration. The next level of subtlety is even more important. If I can also measure which specific actions people do more or less often, with different configurations of my app, I can find clues about my users' intent.

When I combine my understanding of how I think people want to use my product with the detailed measurements of how they actually use it, I can refine and improve my understanding of my users. This lets me iterate smarter; I can then run experiments that are much better informed. With time, this will lead me to a deep understanding of my users' intent. This might appear to everyone else as a lightning bolt of genius, but it's really the result of careful measurement and iteration.

Tweet: To iterate successfully you need a sandbox where you can try out new ideas easily.

Measurement gets a bad rap from the old adage “measure twice, cut once,” which sounds like a warning against trying new things. If this seems like good advice for your situation, it simply means you haven’t set up good sandboxes that allow for rapid measurement and experimentation. Your environment shouldn’t block you from trying out any number of different “cuts” whenever you feel like it because you’ll have the means to measure right after. With the right tools in place, you’d just as easily be able to “cut once, measure twice.”

I’m all for trying new things. Just measure afterwards, so you know if cutting was a good idea in the first place. And then measure again, so you can dig into what was good or bad about that cut. That’s how your “cuts” get better and better.

This careful, “boring” art of measurement is what leads to the fast-paced lifestyle of innovation. The whiteboard scribbles and late nights fueled by Red Bull are merely the side effects of doing innovation right; when you're iterating the right way, you'll obviously want more places to write down ideas, and you'll want to stay late working on them. So, go ahead and cut once. Just be sure to measure twice after.

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